- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 09 December 2014
THE JB’S “THESE ARE THE JB’S” NOW-AGAIN RECORDS
It’s getting tough to keep up with all of the days’ best vinyl records. I’d planned to look at a couple of MoFi’s most recent releases this month along with a couple of the Music Matters Jazz titles in celebration of Blue Note’s 75th Anniversary. But the Black Friday edition of Record Store Day kinda got in the way. There weren’t tons of titles that I was after. Actually, there weren’t tons of titles at all, but the ones that drew my interest turned out to be worth the trouble of getting in line at 6am on a Friday after Thanksgiving. As always, I met some cool folks that loved talking about their collections and about music, in general. It was a lovely way to pass the four plus hours standing in line. I was in the store for about ten minutes. I got in, I worked my plan, I got out, and nobody got hurt.
1970 found James Brown scurrying around to replace his longtime backing band, the members of which had staged a studio mutiny that resulted in a mass firing/walk-out depending on who you ask. Maceo and the gang were out; Bootsy and his brother were in. Apparently, the new band went into the studio and recorded an entire album that finally saw the light of day yesterday in independently owned record stores everywhere. It’s called These Are the JB’s and it was worth the (approximately 45 year) wait. I’d originally thought that all of the tracks on the release were going to be debuts, and I was surprised to see “The Grunt,” and the title track listed on the cover. Even more so when I dropped the needle to find that they were the same versions I’d always known. Surprised, not disappointed. There’s no room for disappointment amidst the fury of “The Grunt.” Those two songs were matched with another two to form the entire album so this is the first time that These Are the JB’s has been heard as it was initially intended, not the first time that all of the songs have been heard. The more revelatory of the two unheard instrumentals is “When You Feel It, Grunt If You Can.” (Whole lot of gruntin’ going on in 1970.) While “The Grunt” swoops in and rearranges your brain’s white matter over the course of a fiery three and a half minutes, “Grunt If You Can” sprawls out over the course of thirteen minutes and rearranges the face of Funk itself. I mean that the tune is basically a medley of the new band’s rearrangements of other artists’ songs. I didn’t realize that upon first listen, and was aghast to think that the JB’s had so obviously ripped off the Meters’ “Chicken Strut.” (The JB’s use horns in lieu of voices to make the chicken sounds.) I didn’t pick out Kool and the Gang’s “Let The Music Take Your Mind” or Hendrix’s “Power of Love.” Thankfully and as always, Alan Leeds’ liner notes provide the listener with all of the background information needed to reconcile the historical nature of the recordings with the timeless grooves that they create. In this instance, those liners are presented in a twelve-page booklet with photos and another brief essay by the project’s producer outlining the process behind bringing this work to light.
I’ve had some bad luck with regards to the quality of certain RSD releases, but, thankfully, this is not one of those. James Brown recordings were likely never produced with the audiophile in mind, and this is no exception. But the pressing is more than passable, and the band’s energy jumps out of your speakers and stays in your face for the duration of the listen. This is The Funk. If that’s your thing, and if you think you can handle it, I say get your hands on one of the 3,000 copies available before they’re gone.
GOV’T MULE “STONED SIDE OF THE MULE” EVIL TEEN
I knew going in to Record Store Day that I was coming away with the JB’s set and the Neil Young Archives box as well as the Phil Spector Christmas reissue. I was less sure about Gov’t Mule’s record of Stones covers. The Mule is one of my favorite Rock and Roll groups, but I always forget that they are because I don’t have any of their vinyl in my collection so I never think to listen to them. I don’t have any of their vinyl in my collection because, historically, I don’t like the way their records sound. Too clean, especially in comparison with the preferred raunchiness of their live shows. I took a shot on Stoned Side of the Mule because it’s a live recording and because the Stones songs that made it on to the record have names like “Monkey Man,” and “Ventilator Blues.” I did the right thing.
For the last few years, the Mule has chosen a hero’s catalog to cover at each of their legendary Halloween shows. 2009 found them working out on Stones tunes at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania with Jackie Greene on guitar. Stoned Side is comprised of seven of the songs performed that evening. “Under My Thumb” start things out safely enough before things get hot with the aforementioned “Monkey Man.” Nothing safe about that one. Drummer Matt Abts handles the “Monkey” vocals after the bridge as well as the entirety of the vocals on “Shattered.” He’s also credited with “Stage Antics” on the latter so I imagine he was up and about doing his Jagger impersonation. I’m sure that was fun to see, but there’s a reason that Warren Haynes does the singing at Mule time. I’d have preferred it if “Shattered” had been replaced by any of the other songs that the band played that night which didn’t make the record. Songs like “Bitch,” or “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.” But this is supposed to be fun, and here I am whining about the band letting the drummer out from behind his kit for the first time on record that I’m aware of. And then presenting the performance for a vinyl-only release in support of independent record stores, no less. Maybe I’m the jackass in this picture. Anyway, it’s a blast to hear these classic songs performed by a band that’s hitting on all cylinders and doing it with minimal accompaniment. I’ve never been Jackie Greene’s biggest backer, but I appreciate his contributions to the Stoned Side. He plays a little mouth harp on “Ventilator” in addition to his tasty guitar work throughout. Steve Elson contributes horn parts on a couple of songs, and that’s about it as far as the guest list goes. The present day Stones entourage looks positively bloated by comparison, and I’m not sure that the extra weight they’re carrying isn’t in the interest of masking the true Stones’ own deficiencies as players now. Musicianship within the Gov’t Mule enclave is not in short supply. Danny Louis’ keyboard work is being singled out for honorable mention. I love the way that guy plays and would have loved to have heard his guitar work on that night’s “Knockin’,” but, alas, it was not to be.
Maybe he’ll do something crazy on the next …of the Mule release which, I believe, is going to be their take on some Pink Floyd tunes with some Jazz and Reggae offerings to follow. Based on the strength of the Stones set, I’m certainly in for the Floyd record. If it’s actually a record. I hope it is because I need all the live Mule in my collection I can get. I didn’t realize how much I’ve missed them until now. I can thank Record Store Day for that, I guess.
VARIOUS ARTISTS “A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR YOU FROM PHILLES RECORDS”SUNDAZED
I don’t like Christmas music, in general. Call me what you want, I don’t like it. I have Duke Ellington’s version of The Nutcracker Suite which is lovely, of course. I have a copy of Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” on vinyl as part of his Chess Box, and I have Keith Richards’ version of the same song as a digital single. Maybe I’m forgetting a couple of things, but nothing appreciable. I’ve given copies of Phil Spector’s classic A Christmas Gift For You as… Christmas gifts before, but I’ve never gotten around to getting a copy of my own. I was gunning for an original, but they’re expensive. I’d decided to settle for the Sundazed reissue as I won’t play it more than five or six times annually, then I saw that Sundazed was issuing a Record Store Day version on red wax and decided to jump on that one. Now, I have a reissue, but it’s a little more collectable than others and I can say that I compromised on something for once in my life. Plus, I have a great sounding copy of the best Christmas album out there. Just in time…
This version really does sound pretty good. As I mentioned, there’s no original on my shelf for comparison, but this copy has all of the rawness that you’d expect from a Phil Spector mono production along with that exceptional depth of field and all the bells (literally) and whistles (figuratively, I think) you can handle. My copy has some sort of residual compound covering part of “White Christmas” as performed by Darlene Love. It looked bad enough to potentially cause a skip & I couldn’t scrub it out on the first try, but I can’t hear it at all. I’ll get out the deep groove cleaner for my next attempt and, if that doesn’t work, I’ll let it ride from there. This is just a fun record, man. Even for a music Grinch like me. I mean, if you don’t like this one, you should probably get your pulse checked. There’s footage of Love playing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” with Springsteen on Letterman as part of the closing credits for the 20 Feet From Stardom documentary. The Boss looks like he’s having too much fun to contain himself which is one of my favorite things about that guy. He loves what he does and he lets it all out. The same could be said for Love and that documentary will let you know in no uncertain terms that she has had to work to earn her joy. Phil Spector didn’t make it easy for her, but I’d say she came out on top after working for a while as a maid to make ends meet. 20 Feet From Stardom is one of the most emotional pieces of film making I’ve seen in ages, and I can’t recommend it enough. Back to the record at hand: the talents of Spector’s right hand man, Jack Nitzsche are on display as an arranger. I’m most familiar with him as a co-conspirator of Neil Young’s and I’m always amazed at the variety of recordings that I see his name attached to. Sonny Bono and Leon Russell are players too in supporting roles for the main events: the Ronettes, the Crystals, and Love. Big fun.
It would have been nice to get a download coupon with this one, but no dice there. The standard black vinyl edition is readily available, but I’d take a look around for the red one just for fun. They made 2,000 of them so get after it. And remember to check out that documentary!
NEIL YOUNG “TIME FADES AWAY” REPRISE RECORDS
Neil Young hit pay dirt in 1972 with Harvest. He celebrated by going on his first major arena tour as a solo artist in 1973. And he didn’t play anything off of Harvest. This was ill received by his fan base, and the whole shooting match was documented on Young’s first live album. Time Fades Away has a bunch of good songs on it. The performances of said songs are decidedly mixed. The mixes of said performances are decidedly poor. Still, there’s too much grit and history in these grooves to pass on it. There’s a certain charm that comes through the struggle and strain. Like watching Michael Jordan will the Bulls to victory during the “flu game.” It wasn’t pretty, but it was a brilliant example of what the human spirit can endure in the interest of true self expression. By all accounts, Ol’ Neil was lucky to survive the Time Fades Away tour. But he got his point across.
Young was backed by the Stray Gators on this run, and apparently the boys in the band could barely stand the sight of each other. That can become a real deal issue over the course of 62 live dates. Two-thirds of the way through, and the drummer quits with a replacement brought in on the fly. It’s the replacement drummer that made it onto the recording. Danny Whitten was supposed to be a second guitarist on the tour, but he was sent home due to his inability to keep it together long enough to rehearse and subsequently died shortly thereafter. Neil was drinking tequila, ranting and raving at every turn, blew his voice out, and had to call Crosby, Stills, and Nash in to get through the tour’s last leg. They can be heard on “The Last Dance.” And if you’re hearing “The Last Dance,” you’re directly in the crosshairs of a Rock and Roll scorcher. To add insult to injury, Time Fades Away is basically a soundboard recording with no house mics used at all. They came out of the board into the first ever 16-track digital mixer which is what allegedly gives the record its muddy, dull feel. I think a straight soundboard recording would have done that on its own, but a digital mixer in 1973 couldn’t have helped. Despite all of that, Time Fades Away has been a phantom that Neil Young fans have been chasing for decades. I bought my first copy at a little vinyl shop in Gainesville, Florida about fifteen years ago. It’s pristine and perfect for comparison to the reissue.
Unfortunately, there’s just not that much to report. This is a part of Young’s Official Release archival project and was actually purchased as part of a boxed set on Record Store Day. The four titles included will almost assuredly be released singly in the coming weeks or months. The Time Fades reissue sounds a little smoother than the original. Some of the vocals have been rounded off so that they’re not so jarring and in your face. But those are the uncomfortably close vocal sounds you get with a soundboard recording. Young has described this as his least favorite Neil album, but hails it as a representative document of what it sounded like as he was falling apart. I still think the songs are great and the performances are good and raw. I love the record, warts and all. This is not for the audiophile so much as it’s for the Neil-o-phile. Those folks have a lot to look forward to because the rest of the Official Release Series Discs 5-8 sounds really great.
TWEEDY “SUKIERAE” DBPM RECORDS
Alright, enough of this Record Store Day business. Back to our originally scheduled program.
I remember watching the Wilco documentary, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, when it was first released and seeing Jeff Tweedy on his tour bus horsing around with his young son who was playing air drums on his legs. Flash forward a few years, and Spencer Tweedy is playing drums on an album. By Mavis Staples. And playing with all of the taste and restraint of a seasoned veteran. His dad thought enough of his abilities to hire him to play on Sukierae which he named after his wife (Spencer’s mom). The boys call themselves “Tweedy.” Why waste time coming up with a name when you already have one, I guess. Sukierae is going to be taxing for some folks. I love it.
If you’re not accustomed to being challenged by Jeff Tweedy at this point, you’re probably not in the game at all. Wilco’s stuff has veered so wildly from their original sound, and sometimes from album to album, that their tunes might be unrecognizable as Wilco songs if it weren’t for Tweedy’s vocals. And it’s not that the tunes on Sukierae are coming from far outer space or anything, it’s just that there’s not a ton to hum along to. No melodies that are going to take up residence in your ears for days at a time. Lots of crazy textures, lots of soft sounds. Jeff Tweedy plays almost all of the parts that aren’t drums, and he built a few of the tunes around demos that he recorded on his phone. I had to look that info up online because I couldn’t figure out why he was credited with playing “the iPhone” and “the cassette” in the liners. That little bit of research led me to an interview wherein Tweedy talks about making Sukierae as a traditional double album. Disc one has a distinctly different vibe than disc two. For the most part, the songs get a little more accessible, a little less esoteric, on the second slab. There aren’t any rockers anywhere to be found there, but songs like “Fake Fur Coat” at least sound similar in tone to some of Jeff Tweedy’s solo acoustic work so his fans can latch on to that if they feel completely adrift in this new sonic landscape that he’s exploring. Loose Fur, one of his side bands, might be another point of entry for some folks. That record did have some rockers on it, and many more players, but was not entirely dissimilar in tone to some of the material on the first half of Sukierae. Especially album opener, “Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood,” which absolutely does count as a rocker. A weird rocker. The kind of rocker that stands in front of the speaker tower in the front row and dances like his hair is on fire. My current favorite Sukierae song is “World Away.” It has a kind of “Don’t Do It” vibe (as performed by the Band) to my ears, but not in an overt way. In fact, if anyone takes the time to make the comparison, they’ll probably think I’m nuts, but I hear it just fine. And that’s one of this album’s strengths for me. There are lots of layers without being too busy or too dense. It’ll grow on you if you give it a chance. I feel certain.
I wish these records were a little quieter. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them “noisy,” but I was hoping for a little more. Still, I won’t be listening to the included CD instead. I’ll scrub the records a couple of times and hope for the best while I wait for the genius in this record to find me. It’s in there somewhere. I feel certain.